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It’s hard to hire good help – if you go about it all wrong


By Kaye Patchett


Bad hiring experiences were one reason why Tucson hair stylist Barry Fisher sold his salon.

“I got tired of employee baby-sitting,” he said. “I was raising one family. I didn’t want to raise another one.”

The face people wear at an interview can change once they join your team. Fisher checked references and hired qualified, well-groomed applicants, but problems he encountered included laziness, poor team playing and downright dishonesty.

“It’s the most common thing I hear from business owners,” said management consultant David Zich of Desert View Management Services Inc., 181 W. Blackstone Road in Oro Valley. “They can’t find good employees. Seventy-five percent of people don’t tell you the 100 percent truth when interviewing.”

Well-honed interviewing skills can help you find the right person. Above all, said Zich, never rush the process. “Take your time and do it right once.”

Create a job description. “People have a picture in their minds of what they want,” said Bill Roach, chairman of the Tucson chapter of SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which offers free counseling for small businesses. But, “a lot of times that picture is very fuzzy.” Be specific. If your accounts payable position includes making phone calls to demand payment of overdue bills, make that clear at the outset.

Many hiring decisions are made in the first few minutes of an interview on the basis of “gut” feeling. “Guard against that,” said Zich. We tend to like people similar to ourselves, he said, “but if you’re hiring someone for a job that you don’t like, you don’t want to hire someone just like you. It’s probably not a good fit.”

Jennifer Mills, office manager at Old El Dorado Stone Inc., 950 S. Park Ave., said her hiring decisions are based “50-50″ on an applicant’s job qualifications and her own instincts. Skill and experience are paramount in handling and installing the granite counters that the firm specializes in, but depending upon “what fire they have, and how passionate they feel about what they do,” she will occasionally hire an applicant with less experience and invest in training. A trial period of three to four weeks allows further opportunities to assess a new hire’s fit with the company culture.

An interview may be used to administer math, writing or other job-appropriate tests. When interviewing sales staff, Cindy Joy, co-owner of La Jolla Diamonds & Gems, 1745 E. River Road, routinely hands the applicant an ink pen.

“I say, ‘tell me why I should buy it.’ ” Handing the person an item of jewelry might elicit a prepared answer, she said, but “selling” an ordinary ballpoint demands creative thinking.

Ask each applicant the same questions, for ease of comparison. Some questions are illegal: For instance, you may not ask a candidate’s age, marital status or plans for a family. Avoid general questions with easily rehearsed answers, such as: “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

Instead, ask open-ended questions that invite people to talk about their experiences. Behavior- or situational-based questions reveal judgment, initiative and ability: For example, “What was the biggest challenge you faced in your last job?” or, “If you learn that another employee is stealing from the store, would you report it?”

Some employers question the usefulness of standardized personality or honesty tests.

“I abandoned them a number of years ago,” said Zich. “People will try to fit the profile that they think is required of them.” Credit checks may also be misleading, Joy pointed out. A bad divorce may result in bankruptcy, she said, “but that doesn’t mean the person is going to steal.”

If you conduct a background check, have the applicant sign a form granting you permission to do so. Always check references. Résumés present applicants as they want to be seen, but may contain inaccuracies or downright falsehoods.

When you have made your decision, it is both polite and professional to send a letter to the other applicants to thank them for coming in.

Before bringing employees on board, said Roach of SCORE, be sure you are in compliance with employment regulations by checking with the Arizona Department of Commerce at http://www.commerce.state.az.us/ or the U.S Labor Department at http://www.dol.gov/

What to do

* Conduct a thorough job analysis. What are the job’s essential functions and key performance criteria? Write a job description for the position based on the analysis.

* Prepare a list of questions concerning the candidate’s skills, abilities and past work performance that you want him/her to answer.

* Since past behavior predicts future behavior, look for the candidate’s reactions as you collect information. For example, has the candidate enjoyed “big picture” work or detailed analysis more? Is he/she more of a generalist or more of a specialist?

* If the job, such as an office manager, demands an individual who is well-organized and handles paperwork easily, you may want to ask, “How do you keep track of your own schedules and desk work in your current position?”

* Ask about specific problems that the job holder may face. For example: “As the customer service representative, you may encounter a few unhappy campers who will yell and scream at you over the telephone or in person. Have you had any experience dealing with difficult customers? Who was the most difficult customer you had to deal with? What was the situation? How did you resolve the problem?”

* Ask open-ended questions that will provide insight into the candidate’s values and traits. If they do not provide you with specific results, probe until they do.

* Take detailed notes that will help you distinguish the candidates from one another, especially if you will be conducting several interviews.

* Provide information on the company and the job to each candidate.

* If possible, have at least one other person meet and/or interview candidates who are “finalists.” Having more than one interviewer helps control for personal biases.

* Do not talk too much. Many experts use an 80/20 rule – you talk 20 percent of the time and the candidate talks 80 percent of the time.

What to avoid

The following subjects are widely regarded as “off-limits” for discussion in an interview. Most relate directly to federal and state employment laws. Legislation covering equal employment opportunity is extensive and complex. Check not only federal laws, but also Arizona laws and guidelines.

In an interview, or on an employment application, do not ask:

* The age of the candidate. Be careful using the words “over-qualified” with older candidates.

* About their arrest record (this is different from convictions – in most states, it is permissible to ask if the candidate has ever been convicted of a crime).

* About race or ethnicity.

* About the candidate’s citizenship. (It is permissible to ask “Will you be able to provide proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. if hired?”)

* About the candidate’s ancestry, birthplace or native language (it is permissible to ask about their ability to speak English or a foreign language if required for the job).

* About religion or religious customs or holidays.

* Whether the candidate owns or rents his/her home and who also lives there. (Asking for an address for future contact is acceptable).

* About pregnancy or medical history. Attendance records at a previous employer may be discussed in most situations as long as you don’t refer to illness or disability.

* About marital status or child-care arrangements (it is permissible to ask if the candidate will be able to work the required hours for the job).

* About physical or mental disabilities (asking whether the candidate can perform the essential job duties is permitted.)

* Remember – When in doubt, ask yourself if the question is job-related; if not, don’t ask!

Source: U.S. Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov/managing/growth/interview.html

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